- Manipulation and Memoryin John Huston’s The Battle of San Pietro*
In May 1945, a few weeks after the war in Europe ended, James Agee, writing in The Nation, praised John Huston’s just-released documentary, The Battle of San Pietro, as the best war movie he had ever seen. That the filmmakers were themselves combat veterans explained, for Agee, “how they all lived through the shooting of the film; how deep inside the fighting some of it was made; how well they evidently knew what to expect.”1 However, we learned years ago – although many film critics and viewers still seem unaware – that Huston and his crew were not actually present during the fighting that destroyed the village of San Pietro Infine in December 1943. Huston reconstructed the battle and restaged and filmed the combat scenes over the course of the following months, inviting his viewers to assume that they were witnessing a real battle as it unfolded, and in subsequent interviews and his own memoirs, he maintained the falsehood.
The story of Huston’s manipulation is not new. Lance Bertelsen first uncovered it in an award-winning 1989 article, and Mark Harris recounts it a recent book.2 Italian historians and film scholars have provided even more detailed evidence of how Huston actually made the film. That story is fascinating but, in some sense, beside the point, because Bertelsen himself, even while exposing the false pretenses under which Huston presented San Pietro, nevertheless praises it as “one of the most harrowing visions of modern infantry warfare ever filmed: a documentary that conveys the raw, repetitive grind of battle and the grim vulnerability of the men who fought it with a respect and bitterness unprecedented in the history of film.”3 It is a just assessment, and it pushes the historical inquiry into the film forward, to its cultural reception, rather than strictly backward, to its historical reconstruction.
The Italian reception of Huston’s film is, in particular, the most striking example of this shift in emphasis. San Pietro, despite its inaccuracies and falsifications, has come to represent the limit of meaning to a war, the point at which futility becomes palpable. An abiding sentiment of pacifism in the Italian public can be traced to this single film. In Italy, the image of the destruction of San Pietro Infine, a village of about 1,400 people first settled in the 11th century, has become inseparable from Huston’s cinematic rendering of it.4 We often think, as Plato did, that representation is always secondary, a bad copy of reality, but The Battle of San Pietro represents war more effectively to Italians than does the lived experience of World War II itself. The film’s portrayal of the Allied campaign has incorporated but then altered and superseded the actual memories of the war and its aftermath. Survivors of the carnage remember Huston’s depiction of their own experiences rather than what actually happened. Italians put themselves into his movie at times and places they don’t belong. And they put Huston into their biographies where and when he was absent. The citizens of San Pietro (Sampietresi) have used their destroyed village and Huston’s film in the service of what Svetlana Boym called “reflective nostalgia,” a pattern of “longing and loss, the imperfect process of remembrance.”5 Huston created a palimpsest, erasing and adding, that produced, not a history, but a unifying memorial experience.
That experience of the film captures a deep emotional conflict. Some of the most destructive fighting of the Italian campaign took place following the Allied landing at Salerno in September 1943, as the troops making their way along Highway 6 through the Liri Valley toward Rome came under assault from well-entrenched German forces in the mountains surrounding them. When the “liberation” of the village of San Pietro Infine came, it was and still is [End Page 4] associated in Italian memory with other prominent symbols of the war’s devastation, such as the Allied bombing of the 14th-century abbey at nearby Montecassino during the same campaign to take Rome. To the Allies, liberation of a city signaled unalloyed gain...